Turning Tables for Justice and “Zero Harm”

by Anne Althauser 

After dashing through midday traffic from North Seattle to Seattle Center Monday afternoon (thanks a lot Joe Biden) on Monday, I finally arrived to a peaceful and energized group of folks standing in the rain circling Seattle’s Raging Grannies. As they sang songs about the opposition to King County’s plans to build a youth detention center on 12th and Alder in the Central District, with lyrics like “when jail is spelled L-O-V-E, oh how I want to be in that number, when jail is spelled L-O-V-E,” young and old united in prayer before European Dissent’s table turning action at Howard S. Wright.

Howard S. Wright, a Balfour Beatty Company, placed the winning bid on a $154 million taxpayer-funded contract with the County to build the detention center. Balfour Beatty is a colossal multinational construction company with a long history of building prisons, among other structures. Conveniently, none of their prison buildings were highlighted on their website, page one of a google search shows me Balfour Beatty built: a 822-bed prison in Kern County, CA; a 1,216-bed women’s prison in Santee, CA;  and a 1,038-bed prison in Mount Rogers, VA. King County and Howard S. Wright remain committed to this $154 million contract in spite of immense community opposition. Therefore, the opposition continues.

While I’m an organizer with European Dissent, I’m not involved in a faith community here in Seattle and was therefore not sure what to expect as I joined this crowd for Table turning Monday. European Dissent is a group of white folks who have come together to acknowledge how our common white identity upholds racism and we have committed to undoing it. We work in consultation with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a national multiracial network of organizers to be a visible force for racial justice and to strengthen a multiracial movement of people in the struggle for a just society.

Parts of this network include EPIC: Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, YUIR: Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, and other local community groups who have worked tirelessly since 2012 to organize in opposition to the building of the new youth jail. Arguing for restorative justice alternatives and working with Seattle City Council, EPIC pushed for the passage of a zero detention resolution last October. EPIC is a recipient of $600,000 in City funds to lead community-based alternatives to detention, meaning instead of taking kids out of school, the community invests in the youth and helps them work through their problems collectively. Sending a child to a detention facility does not help repair harm, but restorative justice gives youth the power in creatively problem-solving and asking for the help they need from their school and community.

Table Turning 2
Julian Herrera overturns a table during Monday’s demonstration at Howard S Wright. Photo Credit: Alex Garland

An unsuspecting and growing group of folks from predominantly white Christian communities have also started to speak out against the building of this new youth jail, supporting the efforts and vision of EPIC and YUIR.

Before storming the castle of Howard S. Wright on Monday, organizers of this table turning led us through a grounding moment to remind us this table turning is not another moment, or just an action, but a part of a larger movement against the prison industrial complex and our racist system that continues to cage Black and Brown youth while touting so-called progressive politics and “equity.”

When asked what fueled the table turning, Jennifer Hagedorn, one of the organizers of the event, replied, “this is an act of anger—a political act to say the building of a youth jail is not alright.”  She continued, “We know this jail will lock up Black and Brown youth and we also know there are other, better alternatives to caging our youth that will not cause the harm, pain, and trauma this jail will.”

Plan A was out the window, though, as our peaceable assembly of 50 churchgoers were greeted by a pair of hired security guards as we attempted to enter the Seattle corporate headquarters of Howard S. Wright. The security guards informed the delegation they could enter the business by invitation only — in spite of the company’s normal procedures, which allow any customer to walk through their front door freely. They also reported they had been hired specifically for this event, and instructed to use the script “you can enter by invitation only.” After many attempts to phone employees upstairs in hopes of said invitation, the group proceeded with their planned programming outside.

A year ago, members of Seattle’s faith community held a table turning event organized by European Dissent in the lobby of Howard S. Wright to voice their concerns about their $154 million contract with the County to build this new youth jail. Tables were turned, prayers were said, and protesters left peacefully afterwards.

This year, since we were shut out from entering Howard S. Wright’s offices, we went forward with the table turning plan and held prayerful action in the entryway of the building. Over the past six months, European Dissent has collected letters from concerned citizens wanting to tell Howard S. Wright personally about their disapproval of the new youth jail. Instead of handing these letters to Howard S. Wright staff as planned, our group taped these letters, along with posters and newspaper clippings talking about the youth jail, to the windows and walls of the building entryway—creating a mystifying collage of community dissatisfaction with Howard S. Wright’s plans to move forward with this contract.

Posters and letters ranged in messaging from sending love to Howard S. Wright to calling out the hypocrisy of their actions. Several posters had direct quotes from Balfour Beatty Construction’s company creed, which states:

At Balfour Beatty Construction, Zero Harm is a way of life.

The goals of Zero Harm are:

  • Zero deaths
  • Zero injuries to the public
  • Zero ruined lives among all our people

A few of us mentioned Howard S. Wright’s duplicity as we joked that they “wrote the posters themselves” with their stated mission statements and goals on their website not matching their intended plans of building a youth jail. How does Howard S. Wright believe a youth jail will not cause harm or injury to the public?

Rev. Lauren Cannon, a pastor at Keystone Congregational United Church of Christ, next led the group in prayer for Howard S. Wright. In conversation with her afterwards, I asked about her involvement in Monday’s demonstration.

She shared that her church got concerned the more and more they read and heard about the County moving forward with constructing a new youth jail and with Howard S. Wright accepting a $154 million dollar bid to build it.

“We [in the faith community] are not going to invest in this disproportionate lock-up of youth of color,” Cannon said, “if we’re really followers of Jesus’ love, we cannot stand by as this jail gets built in a ‘business as usual’ fashion,” Cannon said.

Lauren Cannon
Lauren Cannon leads a prayer during Table Turning Monday. Photo Credit: Alex Garland

Post prayer, individuals from our flock quoted the bible as they physically flipped tables in the building’s entryway, staging a scene of disobedience and discontent. This action was chosen to mirror that of Jesus in the temple courts when he overturned the tables of money changers, driving them away for exploiting the destitute according to the Christian gospels.

We slowly and peacefully left this table turning scene leaving behind a trail of dissatisfaction and broken tables.

Since Monday, European Dissent has launched a social media campaign out of this table turning using the hashtags ‪#‎HowardSWright ‪#‎HolyTableTurningMonday‪#‎NoNewYouthJail ‪#‎BBCcares, urging folks to continue the momentum begun earlier in the week and sending a prolonged message to Howard S. Wright.

When I think of church folks, a very polite and calm image comes to mind. I grew up in a strict Catholic household where I was taught to be respectful and not make a scene or wreak havoc anywhere. I trusted that rules and institutions were in place because I was told so, and to question them was unallowable. I’m being re-introduced to a new form of church-goers though that are questioning their positions in the city and how their continued complacency remains a form of oppression of people of color. I think more of us in this city should learn from this example.

What would Howard S. Wright would do if they received thousands of letters and tweets opposing their building a youth jail? I’d sure like to find out.

Anne Althauser is a graduate of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and writes a regular public health column for the Emerald.

Featured Image by Alex Garland